A Glimpse into the Margins of ‘Development,’ in Context with Northern Thailand’s Highland Ethnic Communities

Tior, 49, has for the entirety of his life lived without modern amenities such as electricity and running water. He was sitting solid and patient upon the well-worn floor of an airy bamboo constructed Buddhist temple-house. Behind him was a separate room sheltering “the sacred well.” The mouth of this water spring is barely large enough to scoop from it a small wooden ladle’s worth of water. Yet it symbolically serves as the cultural heart-center of Baan Nam Bor Noi (in Thai language means, “village with the little well”).

“This is sacred land,” said Tior, who has resided in Nam Bor Noi since it was established several decades ago. “This land belongs to Kru Ba Wong, the great monk whom we (villagers) worship from our core,” added Tior. “He taught us to follow Buddhist principles, be good people, eat vegetarian, not modernize, and maintain our culture. I want to preserve this.”

Nam Bor Noi, a fifty-three household 200-person ethnic Pakagayor (a.k.a. Karen) village community located in northern Thailand’s Lamphun Province, is a one-of-a-kind place (at least when considering modern northern Thailand). It is sociologically comprised of people like Tior who are proud of their organic and ethnically traditional ways of life. This community of devout Buddhists and strict vegetarians exists essentially apart from what is considered ‘the modern world,’ and without its material trappings. Those who live here use no electricity. Villagers utilize a hand-crank operated bucket to draw water from holes they had manually tunneled through the volcanic lava bedrock beneath their feet.

The environment of Nam Bor Noi is (almost eerily) peaceful. While sauntering through this village, one may reverently appreciate the organic base of the land and its peoples. This hamlet-like settlement seems to be growing upward from the ground; it is alive. To someone experiencing this place it may feel, well, normal — flowing from the Earth’s elements.

The village outwardly appears to function smoothly and naturally. There is a distinctive yet unidentifiable odor there; perhaps it is the lava rock. Complemented by the sweet scent of wood-fire smoke, adults doing embroidery and crafting other textiles can be observed. Meanwhile, children can sometimes be observed playing games while using the simple wonders of their natural environment as their playground. Some amuse themselves via some kind of contest using puffy yellow flowers and a water puddle; others are racing to climb dark green stocks of bamboo that are leaning upward toward the deep-blue sky. Gentle laughter while the young and the old interact with one another is pleasing to the ear, heart, and soul.

The feeling one might get while in this village is that of being in the present moment. It appears evident that everyone here is actually living, here — not wishing so much that they were somewhere else. Perhaps a reason for this is that the machine world is totally absent in Nam Bor Noi. What is moving here is largely only the machinery of the human body.

Like many human communities, even those with peaceful and natural environments, there are social problems in this village. However, there is far less apparent stress than life in the city, which involves fighting with the madness of traffic jams or an office clock. None of this exists in Nam Bor Noi. Or perhaps its just in different forms from than that of the urban realm. Still, there is a noticeable difference between this village and the modern city hub, such as the lack of noise racket! There are no airplanes soaring overhead; there is no clattering construction equipment or industrial factories; there is nobody in cars or on motorcycles competing for the roadways; there are no airwave sounds of television or attention sucking internet distractions; and there are no bars with karaoke machines or other riff-raff.

There is the occasional cackling of a battery-powered radio. There is the sound of wood being chopped. There is the hammering and grinding sounds from ethnic handicrafts being forged. There are the footsteps of villagers, as they lug buckets of sloshing water across their shoulders. Muffled conversations coming from thatched bamboo homes with teakwoodleaf roofs can also be heard. Peeping birds flutter overhead; at day’s end, the birds’ songs are replaced with the chirping of jungle bugs.

“This village is very special,” said Tior. “It’s not just foreigners who want to observe our way of life. Other Karen villages need to see this as well. We want to teach others how to live like this. We want to preserve our way of life…This way of life is healthy. It’s something that money cannot buy.”

There is much more to this story

Additional social-ecological components comprise this seemingly idyllic cultural landscape. Another element of this three-sided coin is that life for villagers is damn hard, as the ability to earn a living is often not there. This is quite similar to the general world population, who must find gainful employment as part of capitalism’s global market economy. The primary difference is that fairly recently rural ethnic communities, such as those in Nam Bor Noi, lived relatively sustainably with and from their surrounding environment. This situation, in addition to villagers’ overall societal marginalization and related poverty, forces all work-capable Nam Bor Noi residents to scrape by on a day-by-day basis. Many work urban based jobs, or by doing hard labor for private landowners and corporate agro-companies. They make barely enough money to sustain themselves, about US$9 per day (when there is work).

From January until March, villagers hand-harvest corn and maize, collect leaves and grass for roofing materials, as well as lava rock that is largely used for construction purposes. April through June is Thailand’s ‘dry season,’ so there is no agriculture; villagers clear land or do any kind of work that they can find. Some work various jobs in the city, performing tasks of which are less than desirable (and foreign to their culture). These may include working construction and restaurant work, cleaning, in nightclubs, and other services. They don’t have much other choice.

Others during this off-season time remain in the village. Both men and women create handicrafts, such as necklaces and utensils made from coconut shell. The women weave textiles that they and other villagers wear. Some of this clothing, along with the handicrafts, is sold as a source of supplemental income. They will sometimes work on a dress, a shirt, or other type of craftwork for a week or more and then sell this product for whatever the ‘market rate’ allows, which is usually a pittance.

Textiles offer evidence of civilization. These types of cloth or woven fabric are a glimpse into the depths of a society, their traditional ways of life. They likewise reveal the cultural knowledge and wisdom needed in order to sustainably do so. This said, it is rare these days to witness the weaving of a traditional Karen dress, as the younger generations for the most part no longer know how to make their traditional clothing. Nowadays, what we can see are only cultural shards of what once was. Perhaps it’s just the beauty that remains.

From July to September, villagers harvest longan (a fruit that is cultivated in Southeast Asia), prune trees, tend gardens, dig lava rock, or plant rice. October to November brings more garden tending. December is rice harvesting time. All farm work they do is on land that does not belong to them.

With this hard-earned money, Tior and fellow villagers purchase food predominantly consisting of white rice, which they complement with chili, salt, and humble variations of vegetables acquired from local markets. Some of their foodstuff is grown in scant gardens placed outside of their thatched bamboo houses, or collected from the sparse jungle forest that surrounds them. This dynamic depends on how much money they have, which most of the time isn’t much.

Occasionally, some locally harvested honeycomb complements their candle-lit meals. They are seemingly always willing to give some to others, for the Karen are generally the epitome of a sharing culture. The beeswax that villagers use for some of their handmade candles carries with it spiritual meaning, particularly when considering scent while being burned. The aroma represents a wispy gateway to the heavens, and a remaining element of this ethnic group’s spiritually animist foundation.

Villagers also purchase lamp oil, clothing, shoes, toiletries, and school uniforms for the Thai government school that the children must attend as part of public policy requirements. For a five-person family, total monthly expenditures average about US$80. Some households can save between US$30-$150 per year, which they generally reserve for medical expenses. Villagers may not have much in terms of material possessions. However, they do harness an obvious sense of the dignity and humble gratitude that capacitates their social unity.

One assessment that can be made is that the Nam Bor Noi community is well intact, with exception to a noticeable generation gap. Few teenagers are present in this village; many are off venturing in the urban areas. Yes; villagers now (must) interact with the modern world and its consumerism. Along with this, trash now can be seen along the village pathways and nearby roadways that used to be pristine and clean. Perhaps villagers don’t think much that the plastic wrappers of processed foods won’t disintegrate, like the banana leaf wrappings they traditionally used for their foodstuff. The resulting societal rubbish related to modernity is another yet connected matter. Some Nam Bor Noi villagers exhibit signs of malnutrition, evident in some by their hair having red roots. Regardless, they appear to live a clean life, with an intact social structure.

There is formal leadership, the ‘village headman,’ who holds a Thai State government position. He serves as the village representative when interfacing the Thai government. There are also ‘informal leaders.’ They, for example, may be a village elder, a monk or other spirit man, or someone else whom the villagers revere. These informal leaders do not hold institutional State government power; however, on a village level, they can at times be the gatekeepers when it comes to village affairs.

While all societies have challenges, some cultures seem to handle life with more gracefully than others. What, then, does it really mean to be poor or rich?

Nam Bor Noi (and other rural ethnic communities) is one of the few places remaining that if the electricity grid or the material supply chain that feeds the modern industrialized world were to collapse, its community members could survive. In addition to at least the middle-aged and elderly people harnessing the indigenous knowledge necessary for knowing how to live from the land, what about their social organization, social values, their caring for one another, even while having few material goods? Can it be said then that this community inherently functions in a wealthier way than much of the modernized and supposedly more ‘civilized’ world?

“We are not suffering,” said Tior. “Living like this is fine. It is a quiet and peaceful life…Other people feel like they need material things to be satisfied in life. I think the most important thing for a happy life is to have my own space and food; I can survive. Having a car is a small thing compared to this.

“Eighty percent of the villagers living here in Nam Bor Noi don’t need (or want) electricity or running water,” added Tior. “If someone in this community has money and needs these, or if they don’t follow the rules (that prohibit modernization), they can buy land elsewhere, build a house, and do whatever they want…If I had to move: The reality is that I am here. If I’m not here, it means I’m dead.”

Tior said the Thai government surveyed this village and asked the community if it wants solar cell technology and other utilities. Most of the villagers believe that electricity is dangerous, “a fire hazard,” for the type of houses that comprise Nam Bor Noi. It is perhaps reasonable to speculate whether the Thai government told the villagers this potential myth in order that the community chooses to remain “traditional,” which is good for Thailand’s national tourism industry.

“We asked the government about who would pay for the electricity, water and infrastructure repairs,” said Tior. “For me, I would like to have more light when I’m eating. But I am okay. A major challenge I face nowadays is finding roofing materials for my house. The climate has changed, and the grass is now hard to find. The leaves used as an alternative (from grass) last only a couple years…I worry most about land ownership. I don’t have any rights to this land; the government owns it [and the village is allowed to stay on the property]. … If I don’t have land for growing rice, for eating, this is a big problem. Sometimes, there is no [farm] work. I worry about this too, and getting sick, but not too much.”

Tior said that when all of us humans were born, we didn’t have anything; life was fine. But if we are greedy and selfish, it ruins our life and our relationships. “Our culture is becoming like this,” said Tior. “Actually, the natural world around us is just fine; people ruin themselves. Everyone should be a good person. I don’t know if I’m a good person. I’d like to know how to be one. I do know that I’m not greedy or selfish. … I want to transfer to my children what it feels like to live in the traditional way. … We [in Nam Bor Noi) support preserving this traditional way of life…We want to keep it special. We are preserving our way of life.”

A foundational element of Karen tradition being preserved at Nam Bor Noi is that many residents, including most of the children, reverently congregate every evening near the sacred well and while clad in traditional Karen clothing. The females wear near an ankle-length hand-woven intricately embroidered cotton dress, or a sarong and V-necked shirt; white is for the unmarried, and colored (usually black and red) is for the married. Men wear a sarong and shirt.

Unified, with little or not much to offer in-terms of financial means, they place clippings from nature, such as flowers or another plant, candles, and incense sticks, atop a gold colored tray. Nam Bor Noi’s spiritual man (equivalent to a priest, or a shaman) ceremoniously offers these gifts to Kru Ba Wong, the late monk who founded this Karen settlement area forty-five years ago.

This ritual is followed by the congregation turning around and facing a temple located about one kilometer away, where Kru Ba Wong’s embalmed body is displayed. They then meditate for about fifteen minutes. All that can be heard while they make this ‘merit’ is the chirping jungle bugs, airy whispers of devotion coming from the villagers, and clicking sounds while some of them roll prayer beads between their fingers.

“This nightly tradition is very important for our cultural protection,” said Tior.  “There are many things with development that are surrounding us now. We don’t know about the future, how things are going to change.”

Preserving this traditional livelihood is becoming evermore difficult for Tior and his village family. While this community is doing its best to maintain traditional ways of life, it exists as an anomaly of sorts.

Considering the macro-picture

Nam Bor Noi is encompassed by nine other Karen villages; they all constitute a lowland Karen settlement area called, Phabat Huaytom. Its total population of about 13,000 people, like its surrounding mainstream urban Thailand counterparts, is well underway to succumbing to a modernizing trend. Phabat Huaytom’s outer appearance is further transforming to that of modern-style wooden and concrete houses equipped with high-power electricity, and satellite dishes fastened to their walls. Inwardly, core elements of traditional Karen culture are dissolving. Villagers are succumbing to outside influences that are foreign to their traditional ways of life. This is transforming both the ways in which they live and how they interact with one another. Still, Nam Bor Noi serves as a reminder for those residing in this overall area (and perhaps all of humankind) that the Karen used to live in a different way. This is not explicitly implying that either way is inherently better or worse than the other.

We can more thoroughly understand what is happening with Tior and his community in-terms of cultural transformation by learning generally about how top-down government development processes have altered this global region’s both physical and cultural landscapes.

Northern Thailand’s ‘development:’ altering society from within

‘Development’ is predominantly considered a positive thing, an indicator of what is commonly referred to as ‘progress.’ Particularly in the global West, this is predominantly measured by the amassing of purchased goods and services, as well as by someone’s capacity to acquire such, stuff.

‘Development,’ at its explicit foundation, brings particularly to rural communities in ‘developing’ world areas human rights related elements such as healthcare, financial income, education, and other aspects perceived as good for human well-being. This is coupled with technological innovations that make life easier and more physically comfortable.

While that perspective of development refers to adding something beneficial, let’s consider another frame of reference — the ‘de’ of the word, ‘development,’ denoting removal or reversal. What is development taking away from our cultures and our traditional ways of life? What are the societal replacements? What are the short and potential long-term impacts? What does this mean for all us humans?

This said, there is another definitional viewpoint of ‘development,’ one which in my view provides a most accurate articulation of State-led global market forces underpinning the supposed societal benefits of rural development policies. Dr. Jan Nederveen Pieterse, a prominent scholar of global political economy, development studies and cultural studies, writes in his book, Development Theory — Deconstructions/Reconstructions, that ‘development’ is actually “an organized intervention in collective affairs based on a standard of improvement.”

My clarifying interpretation of Pieterse’s definition is that ‘organized intervention’ is about social policy (i.e., economic, political, and cultural; international, national, and local); ‘collective affairs’ is about culture (i.e., accepted ideas, customs and social behaviors, and also about other aspects that people care about (i.e., policies, education, the economy); and ‘standard of improvement’ is about the Institution: State-modes of organized law or practice (e.g., Colonialism, and other State centered societal directives). In other words, ‘development’ is about enacting top-down policies that interrupt a society’s culture in order to install other (i.e., western democratic capitalism) institutions that facilitate access to and participation in the global market system.

Pieterse says, “In the age of globalization, local culture represents the treasure trove of the Golden Fleece – perhaps the world’s last. The world’s indigenous peoples are the last custodians of paradises lost to late capitalism, ecological devastation, McDonaldization, Disneyfication and Barbiefication. With ecological pressures mounting worldwide, this ethos is gaining ground as if queuing up for the last exit.” … ‘Ethos,’ according to the Oxford Dictionary of English, is the ‘characteristic spirit of a culture, or era, or community as manifested in its attitudes and aspirations.’ Cambridge Dictionary refers to ‘ethos’ as ‘the set of beliefs, ideas, etc. about the social behavior and relationships of a person or group.’

It could be perceived here that Pieterse’s reference to “custodians of paradises lost” is inferring that rural indigenous communities are, or once were, paradises free from environmental and socio-ecological ills. It required years of my own fieldwork to realize (and accept) that while many of northern Thailand’s indigenous communities may dwell in ‘nature’ abundant areas that may even appear idyllic, this is simply not common reality.

I maintain that there are socially binding commonalities that all humans share. These are our intrinsic needs to be loved and accepted, to be accepting and loving, as well as our necessity for having a nourishing natural environment that includes familial and community connections. This, is paradise.

Perhaps all humans, deep-down, are seeking this. However, capitalism ‘development,’ as ‘an organized intervention in collective affairs based on a standard of improvement,’ erodes these facets of vital facets of human society. Whether systematically or by unintended default, ‘development’ retrofits people and our communities into some means-to-an-end combination of capitalism’s tenets of land, labor, capital, and market.

Really; what is the end-game of this unsustainable ‘natural resources’ extractive global market system?

Dissolving ‘traditional’ ways of life: Northern Thailand context

For further context about this topic, and how Tior and the Nam Bor Noi community are part, there exists even in northern Thailand’s lowland areas (i.e., mainstream Thai society) a dwindling number of rural communities that still exhibit lifestyles that could be considered ‘traditional.’

Some rural populations still function in a similar fashion to how all of our human ancestors once did, before the prominent onset of urbanization. They live more integrated into their natural environment. However, this is changing rapidly as the essence of these communities is being further dissolved as the global market system and various lifestyles associated with the modern world perforate their social fabric. Homogenizing ‘modern world’ culture is replacing the ethnically traditional lifestyles of the ‘developing world.’ This is effecting everyone, both those living in rural and urban areas.

Chiang Mai, Thailand’s rapidly developing capital city of the North, has, for example, even in the past decade altered quite dramatically from its traditionally slow-paced and conservative culture into a mini-Bangkok of sorts. This is particularly evident with worsening traffic congestion, pollution, and increasing social tensions. Similar urbanization related phenomena have long-since transpired in Western cultures and communities. These phenomena are drastically altering the geographical and social-ecological composition of the Thai north. This is having a profound effect on how families and individuals interact with each other and with their natural environment.

Farmers are selling their generations-old properties to both domestic and foreign investors. Rice paddies are being filled with concrete. A rapidly growing number of businesses, condominium complexes, and shopping malls are now gracing Chiang Mai’s mountainous Buddhist temple-topped skyline. The overall landscape is transforming. Younger Thai generations are abandoning traditional agricultural economy-based customs for those of industrialized modernity. Financial debt that people oftentimes have difficulty repaying is subsequently incurring and becoming an accepted cultural centerpiece.

What can also be observed is shifting demographics including regional migration issues, societal homogenization involving the national acculturation of indigenous ethnic peoples, expanding income inequality and additional societal stratification, competition for space, and other unplanned changes.

Northern Thailand’s ‘highlanders’

Thailand has ten officially recognized ‘indigenous’ ethnic groups. They are the Karen, Hmong Akha, Lisu, Lahu Htin, Khmu, Lua, Mien, and Mlabri, totaling over 926,000 people, according to the Asia Pacific Human Rights Information Center and Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand.

These ethnic groups, in addition to migrant workers, are the marginalized of the marginalized. Commonly referred to as “hill tribe people,” another name that has been used is chao khao (meaning, “hill/mountain people”). They have also carried the derogatory label of chao pachao meaning ‘people’ and pa meaning ‘forest;’ this has the connotation of them being ‘wild people,’ or the opposite of ‘civilized.’ A more recent, politically correct, term used for Thailand’s ethnic groups is “highlanders,” “Thai people in the forest,” or “highland Thais.”

According to the Asia Pacific Human Rights Information Center and Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand, “In opposition to these negative connotations of the official designation, chao khao, or other commonly used derogatory terms, indigenous organizations and indigenous peoples’ rights advocacy groups began to promote over ten years ago the term chonphao phuenmueang as the translation of “indigenous peoples.”

The Thai government, however, has predominantly rejected the term ‘indigenous peoples.’ It, as part of decades-old national culture building campaign, explicitly considers these groups as much ‘Thai’ as other Thai citizens. It is proclaimed that they can experience the fundamental rights of Thai citizens. However, this is not the reality. Thailand’s ethnic groups continue to endure the same historical stereotyping and systematic discrimination as indigenous peoples elsewhere in the world. Although many of these communities have for generations lived in northern Thailand’s mountains, they are still not considered Thai nationals. Therefore, many do not have Thai citizenship necessary for receiving government social benefits.

Moreover, they for decades have been being literally forced through public policy to become part of a modernizing trend; they now must largely depend on local and world market systems traditionally alien to them for survival. For the most part, villagers can no longer live in their traditional manners. This overall situation is having a profound impact on their ways of life, making their future uncertain.

Regional human migration context: “Zomia”

The work of Dr. James Scott, a distinguished professor of Political Science and Anthropology and author of the book, The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia (2009), puts into further context northern Thailand’s rural highland communities, including that of Baan Nam Bor Noi.

Scott says that those currently living in the highlands are the descendants of people who fled State-making projects. They have, according to Scott, made “conscious choices” about how and where to do so and within the often difficult-to-access peripheries of State power.

Scott refers to “Zomia,” a term coined in 2002 by historian, Willem van Schendel. This refers to a location in Ne-India called, “Zo.” This word means ‘hill’ or a place far from the center of State power. Zomia is referring to an area encompassing eight different countries and is at the center of none. It involves lands above three-hundred meters, stretching throughout slivers of China, Vietnam, Ne-India, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Burma and northern Thailand. It covers about 2.5 million sq. kilometers and comprises about one hundred million people.

Scott says that this Zomia migration phenomenon has involved people fleeing conscription, disease, slavery, warfare, and taxes. They are “fugitive runaways” in “non-State spaces” and have been fleeing this oppression for two-thousand years. In Se-Asia, for example, they have gone into the mountains. However, refuge places such as swamps and other areas difficult to access by central State forces have been selected.

“Zomia is the last remaining region of the world where people have not been incorporated into nation states, but it’s days are numbered,” says Scott. These areas represent a last frontier of sorts. These people are humanity’s living ancestors, what we were like before civilization. Scott says that their choice to not record ethnic traditions via the written word is an example of their “strategic life choices.” Likewise, their traditions related with kinship structures, social organizations, physical dispersion, cropping strategies, etc. are solely for the purpose of keeping the State at arm’s length. Scott asserts that Zomia-dwelling highlanders, especially in the mid-1800s, are historically “part of a deliberate Statelessness…those who got away.” Zomia is hence the last great enclosure of non-State peoples.

Throughout the 200,000 years that people have been on Earth, any notion of a State is fairly recent. For example, small states of Se-Asia arose about 3,000 years ago. This said, human life has mostly been lived outside of the State. Scott further says that a State’s function, and therefore its existence, is largely dependent on agriculture. All areas outside of early states involved a dispersed and nomadic population. This was the “barbarian sovereignty,” which means they were not under the State’s agriculture-linked tax regime. The State rather had relationships comprised of trade between these rural peoples and their lowland trade partners. It was a relationship of exchange from which could be withdrawn.

The other relationship between the State-center and those living on its peripheries, was that of slavery, which particularly involved people without State citizenship. Most trade in Se-Asia involved slave trading. This was conducted in an effort to sweep-in a population and make them State subjects for purposes of labor and grain tax. This in Se-Asia became reality about four hundred to five hundred years ago. Highlands dwelling people were even captured by each other for these purposes and sold to the valley kingdoms; this includes in Siam. [Prior to its, arguably global West-forced, 1932 transformation into becoming Thailand, which means, “land of the free man.” For more information about Siam’s Britain-led imperialization, reference the 1855 Bowring Treaty.]

Scott further says that after 1945 two major things changed concerning State territorialization. One is that while States used to control small portions of their land and peoples, technological and infrastructural advancements involving roads, land vehicles, helicopters, and electronic communications equipment capacitated the central State to project itself into its peripheries. The second change is that the State further realized that peripheral peoples reside on natural resources that could be used for foreign exchange (e.g., timber, hydroelectric sites, precious minerals, etc.). Suddenly, these areas became interesting and important to control for advanced capitalism.

Scott reveals that in some higher elevation areas within the Zomia region the State does not exist. However, in Se-Asia this does not apply. In Se-Asia, the valleys are the locations of States, including social hierarchy, taxes, kings and permanent clergies, large-scale warfare, self-described civilizations, and above all: wet rice agriculture. The hills, rather, involve swidden/shifting (slash and burn) cultivation. Moreover, in the highlands, the population is dispersed. It is relatively egalitarian, which is the belief in and practice of people being equal and deserving of equal rights and opportunities, and involving zones of cultural and linguistic variety. Scott refers to these as “shatter zones,” comprised of many different cultures and where there are no taxes paid to kings or a permanent clergy.

Scott says that most people in Se-Asia consider these people almost as though they are a different species. Some people even mistakenly believe that mountain dwelling people have no civilization, that this ‘stage of human social development and organization which is considered most advanced’ (Oxford Dictionary) is purely a lowland achievement. Still, people have for a long time been transferring themselves between the lowlands and highlands, as “regions of refuge.” People have migrated for many reasons, including famines linked with the accumulation of grains.

Scott argues that the “tribes” in the hills made themselves over time. The idea was to concentrate grain and people within a reasonable distance from the State-center. Wet rice cultivation concentrates populations because it grows above the ground, rendering it relatively vulnerable to State confiscation or destruction. Wet rice stores well, has high value, and can be carried quite far. However, this is not the case in the highlands where mostly upland rice exists [requiring people to be fairly nomadic and diversified in-terms of livelihoods].

Around 1700 A.D., Scott says that the Zomia population was five people per square km. Therefore, people could not be controlled by controlling land. So they had to be roped in and confined. Due to the importance of waterway navigation (i.e., for commerce), States in Se-Asia became created around river systems (e.g., the Irrawaddy in Burma/Myanmar). However, States stopped at the mountains and marshes, where it was difficult to extend socio-political power. This scenario would vary with the climatic seasons.

Scott says that villagers in some areas, if they can, choose the best forms of agriculture. He says that root crops, such as tarot, yam, sweet potatoes, and cassava are the the most ideal because they cannot be easily destroyed by the central government. These life-sustaining crops are “State resisting” forms of livelihood … “agriculture of evasion” and “escape crops.”

Cultivation where people slash and burn the brush and then plant crops in the ashes, cultivate crops there for some years, and then prepare another spot means that the fields (and the people) move around. This creates a situation whereby people cannot be taxed. These fields can sometimes grow twenty to thirty kinds of crops, with only some crops mature at any given time. Therefore, the State cannot appropriate this. This is a form of agriculture that “keeps them out of the clutches of the State” and is chosen for its advantages in State evasion.

Speaking about orally transferred ethnic traditions, or lack-thereof, Scott says that almost all of Se-Asia’s hill peoples have a folklore story about a book that was stolen or that was lost, but will be returned someday with the society’s redemption. I have in my fieldwork heard this story when learning from the ethnic Karen, who have been deeply infiltrated by Christian missionaries. Scott says that texts are permanent. However, oral tradition can easily be altered, especially if you are a weakened peoples and need to adapt to a topical situation (e.g., top-down instituted land use regulations, such as is the case in northern Thailand).

Scott says that some hills-dwelling people have erased their histories, or have retained as much as they want to retain. Physical dispersal, no permanent rulers, oral traditions, simplified social organization, shifting cultivation, remote and inaccessible places, and religious practices are always different from valley people. This makes them “barbarians” to the valley people, however, it is very advantageous to some highlanders.

While not all of Scott’s theoretical work is applicable to the modern-day status of northern Thailand indigenous folks, surely this information is relevant to Siam/Thailand’s long-term history. Moreover, it reveals something about how the root motivations of rural ‘development’ has been and remains really about geographical and sociological territorialization.

Northern Thailand’s ‘Zomia’ context

Considering again northern Thailand’s ethnic indigenous communities and their ability, or lack thereof, to fully live in their traditional ways, the beginning of the end began in the 1950s. Briefly, this is when the Thai government enacted land use regulations that, by placing rural ethnic communities inside national park ‘reserved forest’ territory, capacitated the State to top-down govern the soil underneath villagers’ feet and therefore what they are allowed to do in terms of livelihood.

This said, Northern Thailand’s rural indigenous ethnic communities used to experience relatively freestyle land usage. Slash and burn upland rice and opium shift cultivation was central to their traditional livelihoods. They did this relatively autonomously for decades, even centuries for some ethnic groups (such as the Karen). However, the primary, and perhaps most devastating, policy was (and remains) the eliminating of villagers’ ability to practice their traditional shift cultivation lifestyles.

This may appear to some as a minor phenomenon; however, if viewed through a socio-cultural lens, the entirety of villagers’ lives (e.g., livelihood, textiles, language, music, oral traditions etc.) traditionally revolves around the harvest cycle (i.e., ‘nature’). If these social-ecological systems become interrupted (or severed), as they did in northern Thailand, a situation ensues whereby people are rendered essentially lost until another system can be structured and implemented (if at all).

It is perhaps needless to state that the land and natural resource tenure situation, as well as the linked socio-power dynamics, for northern Thailand’s ethnic groups is highly complex. Although villagers have no de jure (rightful legal claim) to the land, many communities, with the paramilitary Thai Forestry Department never far away, have been granted de facto permission to cultivate upland territories for both community and private (i.e., household) purposes.

Essentially, they were arguably government force-converted to farmers of sedentary orchard agriculture. Villagers, using informally secure household land plots positioned within what is essentially community shared territory, nowadays cultivate cash crops. Forest products, regarded by some village communities as common pool resources, are also collected for personal use and sometimes financial income purposes.

In terms of central government and local-level power relationship dynamics, villages, such as those of Nam Bor Noi, are registered within the Thai central State system. This means they are subject to State government policy regulations, while rendering some publicly funded services such as formal (nationally instituted) education as well as infrastructure maintenance (e.g., electric power). Villagers’ overall maintain a favorable viewpoint of government managed development projects; however, this is generally as a means to an end, involving personal gain and also appeasing the military-led government.

For decades, opium cultivation in northern Thailand served as a financial income source for these relatively isolated ethnic communities. Even thirty years ago, while there was road access to many villages, travel to them was precarious. About once per month, for example, residents of some villages would pile into the back of a truck and journey to the city in order to acquire necessities such as salt in exchange for the opium they had cultivated. Contrary to popular belief, not all opium-growing highland villagers were addicted to opium (nor were they drug dealers); this is although addiction, and the social problems that come with this, was surely a major problem.

In 1961, the Thai State Park Act was ratified. This policy instituted the further establishment of national parks and other forest conservation areas, all managed by the strict authority of the Royal Forestry Department. This brought with it a plethora of major changes for rural highland communities. This included stringent land use regulations effecting villagers’ traditional practices involving hunting, fishing, as well as wood, medicine, and forest food gathering. Recall that for spiritually animist agrarian societies, all of these traditional practices are intimately linked with their belief systems. If these societal systems are drastically altered or severed, a form of irreversible ethnocide ensues.

Pieterse says that “Developmentalism is the ‘truth’ from the point of view of the centre of power…The central thesis is that social change occurs according to a pre-established pattern, the logic and direction of which is known…Those who claim themselves furthest advanced claim privileged knowledge of the direction of change­.”

Hirsch in his 1989 article, “State in the Village: Interpreting Rural Development in Thailand,” writes quite critically of the Thai State’s development related motives. He says that “The discourse of rural development contains much that deals with villagers increasing their share of the fruits of development, their rights, duties, and responsibilities as citizens, and the unity of the Thai people. Implied is a sense of belonging, of the village as an integral part of the State, of villagers as subjects rather than objects of State policy, of farmers as the ‘backbone’ of the nation.

“Yet by the same token, the official discourse of nation, religion and Monarchy is reinforced by physical and institutional accessibility afforded by schemes falling under the rural development aegis to establish an increasing monopoly in terms of legitimacy of State institutions and procedures affecting the everyday social and economic life of village and villagers…In other words, just as State-led rural development in principle gives village and villagers access to the material and political resources of the State, with all the implications for citizen participation, modernization, and perhaps democratization, so the State is moving into the village. The latter move is through reformed (or co-opted?) village institutions as well as by facilitation of entry by State officials.”

Later, throughout all of northern Thailand’s highland areas, came the Thai State Park Act. The Thai Royal Project was initiated in 1969, by beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX). This development project had, and still has, the explicit purpose of solving problems associated with highland deforestation, as well as poverty and opium production by promoting and growing alternative cash crops such as tea, fruit, flowers, and vegetables.

This domestically and internationally commended rural development program has indeed expunged opium from Thailand’s countryside. It has also improved many villagers’ overall life situation in terms of economics and personal health. The thorn of this rose, though, is that this organized intervention in collective affairs has also drastically transformed rural ethnic communities’ physical environments and overall social functioning.

A social-ecological transformation for highlanders

Like other modern world communities, villagers must now generate financial income for life necessities. This is as well as for the perceived material needs offered by consumerism, such as processed foodstuffs and electronics. Moreover, highland villagers now living and working in the lowland urban areas creates a myriad of issues both outside and inside of the village.

In the village, alcohol and meth addictions are an ever-growing sociological by-product of this brave new world that co-exists with those villagers who are still attempting to live a quiet village life and are struggling to maintain the norms and values associated with their traditional culture. This is transpiring while village community members dressed in traditional clothing mix with younger generations wearing colored hair, T-shirts, and name brand shoes. They are mimicking mainstream Thai (and therefore, modern world) culture.

Overall, the villagers appear to be in shock, desperately trying to maintain their traditions while adapting to the encroachment of a modern lifestyle that is pulling them in, particularly the youth, one television program at a time. For many villagers it’s as though they’re simultaneously living fundamentally different ways of life — a mixture between their cultural heritage and that of the mainstream modern world.

In some villages, like Nam Bor Noi, both open cooking fires and glowing television sets comprise standard furnishings in bamboo huts where families eat meals still containing food collected from the nearby forest. Sometimes a baby’s cries meld with the thumping of a karaoke machine, a result of electricity having been installed. Shiny new motorbikes are parked next to the satellite dishes pointing towards the sky, plugging villagers into what some of them call “the outside world.” With the new roads, used largely for transporting cash crops, traffic jams are sometimes even an issue in some villages!

Many villagers, much like in what people may consider more ‘civilized’ or ‘advanced’ cultures, want to keep up with their modernizing neighbors but don’t really know how to cope with their rapidly changing environment. The younger generations are looking to the outside world for examples of how to survive in a modern society. They have little to no clue which world existence paradigm they should identify with or to which one they belong. For example, one can witness the stark contrast of a young Thai-speaking villager clad in his or her traditional ethnic clothing while also wearing caked-on makeup or a hairstyle mirroring modern Korean hip-hop culture. The middle-aged villagers want to preserve their culture for which they feel responsible; however, these folks are also being enticed by modernity related conveniences. Most of the elders can’t identify with any of this. Most all of these villages are enduring what is a very real and tangible identity crisis.

Although it is likely impossible that what could be deemed ‘traditional’ or ‘modern’ can truly exist simultaneously, these more traditional communities can potentially serve as a contemporary social-scientific measurement of humankind in terms of how it is has been and is being affected at its core by modern development related phenomena. This includes how physical environment related changes alter relationships among ourselves and with our natural environment. The residents of Ban Bor Noi are surely included in this dynamic.

Bringing this discussion back home: roots of transformation

Tior said that in the early 1970s there were four Karen elders who were seeking “a healthier way of life” away from hardship and opium addiction. They held Kru Ba Wong’s Buddhist teachings in high esteem and pioneered a new path by pilgrimaging from the highlands to Phabat Huaytom in order to learn from the sage.

Kabuwa, 84, is one these four pioneers. He reveals to us the background story of this area and delivers a message about this region’s overall ‘development’ story, and how rural Thai communities and the indigenous ethnic groups are part.

“Nearly fifty years ago, I lived high in the mountains,” said Kabuwa, while perched in a hut-like structure placed in the middle of a watery and verdant rice field.  Kabuwa is old but still works agriculture with youthful vigor. “My life (in the mountains) wasn’t comfortable. The transportation wasn’t good. I had to walk on the steep and mountainous slopes, go up and down. It wasn’t good. But it was easy to hunt and find wild food.

“I was inspired to change my lifestyle for Kru Ba Wong, the great Buddhist monk who visited my village many times,” added Kabuwa. “He brought with him many wise teachings. He taught about the Buddhist code of ethics, the five precepts (i.e., don’t steal, commit adultery, lie, drink alcohol, or harm animals). This philosophy was different from that of my traditional animist beliefs and related customs. However, I gained deep respect for him, and I accepted his teachings.”

Kabuwa explained that when Kru Ba Wong offered for him, and those in other villagers, to come live in Phabat Huaytom, “I left my highland home and followed him. The only criteria for living here was that I had to accept and maintain the regulation of strictly following Buddhist principles. I also had to become a vegetarian. Despite these lifestyle changes, my life here remains much more comfortable than it was while I was living in the jungle forest.”

When Kabuwa arrived to Phabat Huaytom, there were only two houses built. Soon after his arrival, however, many Karen began migrating to here. Modern infrastructural development also expanded. “We all came here to follow Kru Ba Wong, to make merit, to follow his teachings,” said Kabuwa. “When I moved here, there was abundant shading from large trees (unlike nowadays). The houses were constructed of bamboo and grass, Karen style.

“Everyone lived in harmony,” he added. “We were sharing, not selling things like we do today. However, the biggest limitation at that time was water scarcity. There was only one water source, the sacred well located at the Buddhist temple that Kru Ba Wong had initiated. The water well was a small pot, but it could support all of us villagers, as a community. This is why we call it a sacred well.” Kabuwa recalled that there wasn’t enough water available at that time to grow the amount of vegetables required for the expanding community, so they (perhaps for the first time in their life) had to buy food from the local markets being established.

“To pay for this, I worked in the fields for two to five Thai baht (less than US $.15) per day,” said Kabuwa. “I became firmer about my working rate and eventually received ten baht per day for my labor. I gave half of it to the temple, for making merit to Kru Ba Wong.” Kabuwa shared that Kru Ba Wang was a wise man who had a good plan and created a residential zoning system as well. “The roads here were made from dirt and lava rock,” said Kabuwa. “We (Karen) hand-built the roads, while the Thai people watched us construct them.

“In the past though, we had no modern technology,” he added. “We hand-washed our clothing. We used organic materials such as roots and charcoal to clean our teeth. All of our food was cooked using a wood-fueled fire, and we used candles for lighting our homes. We walked everywhere. Only the wealthier people could afford a bicycle. Still, everyone was in-harmony, unlike nowadays…Everything has to be purchased now. People are more selfish, and they buy more things.”

Kabuwa reiterated that ten primary villages now comprise Phabat Huaytom. “We had to cut down all of the trees to build all of these houses, and the grass for the roofs is very difficult to find now. Only two villages are maintaining our traditional Karen ways of life,” one of which is Nam Bor Noi.

Back to the basics

Just thirty years ago, all villagers in Phabat Huaytom still lived traditionally like those in Nam Bor Noi. Moreover, most all of the men during that time knew how to play the traditional music. This is in addition to other facets of traditional Karen culture (such as language and dance) that are passed between generations and serve as a cultural lifeline. This livelihood, including in Nam Bor Noi, has near totally vanished. Social degradation, such as interpersonal conflict, theft, alcoholism and other drug use, is becoming evermore prominent.

“Thirty years ago, many outsiders, tourists from within Thailand and from other parts of the world, came here to observe our traditional ways of life,” said Kabuwa. “They brought foreign objects, and ideas. This changed us. It transformed our traditional ways of life.”

Kabuwa revealed that things really began to change here about ten years ago when the road was changed from dirt to tar. “This brought the outside world to us even more,” explained Kabuwa. “In some ways, things did change for the better after Kru Ba Wong asked the King (Bhumibol Adulyadej) to bring academic people here to Phabat Huay Tom and teach us about what plants we can grow during the dry season.

Kru Ba Wang also asked for a variance regarding Thailand’s government requirement that all men must serve two years in the military,” added Kabuwa. “We are true Buddhists here. We don’t eat meat, and we don’t kill people. The King agreed and also initiated additional development projects here. Now we have a reservoir and a crops irrigation system. We can grow rice. This started about twelve years ago.

“There used to be one man here who could teach Karen writing, but now he is blind. We proposed these teachings be part of the curriculum offered in the local Thai school. However, this idea was rejected. We were told that if we are to be Thai then we must learn Thai. We are not Thai!”

What can be done to preserve these ways of life?

“Nowadays, we can and do maintain the traditional Karen ways of life,” said Kabuwa. “We still, for the most part, keep the Buddhist precepts. We still speak Karen with each other. We still weave and often wear our traditional clothing. Our houses still have no fences around them; we welcome our neighbors. We aren’t forcing anyone living here to do this. Everyone is doing it by himself or herself. I believe that by people staying together like this, we can keep ourselves together through community connection.”

Kabuwa said that the older and middle generations are okay in-terms of culture preservation, perhaps because they have learned about traditional Karen ways of life. However, “It is up to the parents to teach the younger generations.” He does not know, however, if the newer generations will continue the Karen’s traditional ways.

Tior admitted he also does not expect that the newer generations will preserve this culture. “However, once you’ve been in this environment, it will be with you forever,” said Tior. “Because the younger generations here have lived like this, it will be with them forever…If we take care of our children, equip them, then we will protect our culture.”

“I don’t know how much longer I will be alive,” said Kabuwa. “I don’t know what will actually happen here once I am gone. I don’t know if their lives will have more suffering, how much they will be so busy. It’s not like in the past. I know I feel sad, if they don’t keep a simple life like in the past.”

Kabuwa explained that what is most different about the newer villages being erected in this area — the primary shift in their culture here — is that the Karen who live in these newer areas have come here just to live, not to make merit and follow the ways of Kru Ba Wong. And he feels “upset that the newer generations no longer strictly obey Kru Ba Wang’s instructions.”

Kabuwa was asked if he had a specific message that he wanted to share with the world.

“I want the Karen to come back and keep our traditional ways of life,” he said, with controlled but tearful emotion. “Don’t leave it! Don’t see capitalism, the outside, as more important than our traditional ways of life! Our way of life is simple, not busy like those people in the city. Keep the good relationships that we have with each other.

“I want to say to the Karen people that if you have lost your way, please come back.”

References:

  • Asia Pacific Human Rights Information Center and Network of Indigenous Peoples in Thailand; https://www.hurights.or.jp/archives/focus/section2/2010/12/indigenous-peoples-of-thailand.html
  • Hirsch, Philip. (1989). “The State in the Village: Interpreting Rural Development in Thailand.” Development and Change,” 20(1), 35-56.
  • Pieterse, J. N. (2001; 2010). Development Theory — Deconstructions/Reconstructions. Sage
  • Scott, J.C. (2013, April 10). “James Scott on the topic of ‘The Art of Not Being Governed.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RNkkEU7EoOk
  • Warner, Jeffrey (2019). The ‘De’ of Development: Ecosystem Services, Societal System State Shifts, and Our Transmuting Human Condition in Context with Northern Thailand’s Top-Down Highlands Development. Master of Humanity and Environmental Science. National Dong Hwa University, Taiwan. Unpublished until January 2021; however, this thesis is available at https://www.jeffsjournalism.com/societal-development

Acknowledgement: Deep gratitude is being extended to Tanya Promburom, for her translation service and for facilitating this overall research.